Wednesday, May 19, 2010

An Echo in the Bone, by Diana Gabaldon

Is there any point in trying to summarize this book? Or even review it? As the seventh doorstop sized novel in this series, there is so much incident, so many characters, that either you know the series and love it enough to make it this far, or you don't. In the latter case, this review will probably not be helpful.

Where to start? "Outlander" was the first book in this series, and Gabaldon's debut. It tells the deeply Scottish story of Claire Beauchamp (pronounced "Beecham") Randall, an English woman in Scotland of 1946. Reunited with her historian husband Frank after they both served in WWII, they are enjoying a second honeymoon when Claire finds herself amid a circle of standing stones on Midsummer's day. Turns out that the stones are a time portal, and Claire is thrown back some 200 years to a very different Scotland, one on the verge of rising against England in hopes of returning the Stuart kings to the throne.

This summary does absolutely no justice to the craft of the book, however. These things happen, but they happen slowly, after Gabaldon has meticulously accumulated so much detail that as a reader you find you don't even have to suspend your disbelief. Gabaldon manages to make this science fiction premise seem plausible, and even rational. Claire is an ex-Army nurse, hard-headed and practical, and not the kind of character who would easily accept this weird happening. As such, she is a wonderful guide to the 18th century--tart tongued, skeptical, well-educated enough to know her history and to experience the way history leaves out all the details that MATTER when one is trying to stay alive.

It is here in the 18th century that she meets Jamie Fraser, the man who turns out to be her soul mate. There are some romance novel machinations in which Claire finds herself forced to marry this younger man--but again, the novel uses the plot as a frame on which to hang something far more engaging than a mere romance. The bulk and appeal of the book lies in the relationship of the characters and in the way a 20th century woman comes to experience the past as its own country and culture, and things that seem incomprehensible to a modern sensibility come to make sense in the context of the past.

Much happens plot-wise in the six books before An Echo in the Bone, which themselves cover some 35 years of history and range from Scotland to France to America. (Not to mention the Lord John Grey novellas that augment the Fraser story.) Claire and Jamie age as well, and at the start of this book are living mostly obscurely (if not exactly quietly) on their homestead at Fraser's Ridge, North Carolina. But the American Revolution has started in Boston, and the ripples are disrupting lives even so far away. Jamie determines that his best option is fetch his printing press from Scotland and publish pro-Revolution documents. It will come as no surprise to fans of the series that while Jamie does manage to make it to Scotland and back to America, the trip is neither straightforward nor easy, and by the end of the hundreds of pages of this book, he still is not printing anything.

So much gets in the way, and the sheer number of characters is almost impossible to believe, much less keep track of. Jamie and Claire have a daughter, Brianna, who was concieved in the 18th century, born and raised in the 20th, then came back to the 18th century to meet her father. At the end of the previous book in the series (A Breath of Snow and Ashes), Brianna, her husband Roger MacKenzie and their two children return to the 20th century and buy Jamie's ancestral home Lallybroch. Their lives are not uneventful either, and by the end of the book, it appears that Roger may have gone again to the 18th century. This is not clear, however, and remains one of many cliffhangers that makes fans of the series rabid for the next book.

Many other characters are also given significant narratives. It is my recollection that the earlier books were primarily first person narration by Claire. While Claire continues to serve as our primary guide, her sections are nearly equalled by the third person sections that follow her nephew Ian Murray, Jamie's illegitimate son William Ransome (Lord Ellsmere), and William's stepfather and Jamie's ontime jailer-now-friend Lord John Grey. As so we see the Battle of Fort Ticondaroga both from the view of the Frasers inside the fort, and of William Ransome as a British soldier. It provides a fascinating view of the American Revolution to see it from the perspective of both the enemy and the accidental participants.

There are a few weaknesses, of course, but those are far outweighed by the many many delights. I could have done without having Lord John meet Benjamin Franklin in France, and would have happily not had Claire run into Benedict Arnold while he was still an American general and patriot. There are a few too many events and coincidences--both Ian Murray and William Ransome meet and fall in love with the same Quaker woman, while never meeting each other, for example. And the farce of piracy and counter-piracy that constitutes the Fraser's trip from North Carolina to New York takes far too long to tell, and made it hard for me to believe that they could ever make a longer journey over to Scotland.

But then balanced against those quibbles are the deep delight with which Gabaldon writes of things like Claire getting spectacles, because both she and Jamie are aging. Or the complicated character of 20th century Rob Cameron, a hydro-electric employee who works under Brianna in modern Inverness--he plays a nasty hazing trick on Brianna, but seems genuinely pleased when she foils it. He is both a damaged man who triggers sympathy, and a dangerous man who kidnaps young Jemmy after reading the McKenzie's papers about hidden gold.

The gold--dates back several books to the chests that King Louis sent to aid Charles Stewart in his attempt to reclaim his throne. It came to Scotland far too late, and a significant portion ended up in the illegal possession of Jamie's aunt, Julia Cameron. It was stolen from where she had hidden it on her own plantation by Arch Bugg, one of the homesteaders on Fraser's Ridge. He apparently hid it under the foundation of Jamie and Claire's house, where it was guarded by a white sow so bad tempered it was commonly held to be possessed by demons. When the house burned down--a burglary attempt by another time traveler seeking gems to protect him in his trip back to his own time ended up with spilled ether and Ian unknowingly lighting a match--Arch and his wife attempted to retrieve the gold. Mrs. Bugg threw a hatchet at Jamie to prevent him from stopping her, and Ian shot her with an arrow that killed her. Arch, already a fanatical Jacobite who seemed to want to take the gold back to Scotland to renew the rebellion, went entirely mad and swore to stalk Ian until he took a wife, and then Arch would kill her.

So, while a crazed and murderous stalker would seem to be unnecessary to create dramatic tension in a book that puts its characters into the middle of Revolutionary battles, one has to give Gabaldon some credit for the intricacy of her work. Arch Bugg (and his wife) first appeared two books ago, in The Fiery Cross as a factor for Jamie's farm, and they served as solid tertiary characters for comic relief and plot advancement for years before they turned into villians in this book. That's why it's hard to even review this book as a book, rather than as part of the larger saga to which it belongs.

So, in brief--yes, this book is as good as its predecessors, and worth the time. The entire series is more than a guilty pleasure, and deserves the devotion it has from its fans. The audio book is delightfully read by Davina Porter, and the time spent listening feels like time spent with a good old friend.


Alisson Furman said...

Thank you so much for this summary - I just attempted to read Written in My Own Heart's Blood but had apparently forgotten the entire plot in the five years since Echo in the Bone. This got me back up to speed :)

Diane said...

I'm about to read "Written in my Own Heart's Blood"'s arriving from Amazon tomorrow. Between this commentary and Wikipedia's synopsis of "An Echo in the Bone" I feel reacquainted with where the story left off. Thanks very much.